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Review: Cooper's Hawk in Coconut Creek is like a Cracker Barrel with wine

 

★★

Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurant in Coconut Creek is a smooth and sleek place that is all polish and little soul, part of a growing chain that seeks to blend a Napa Valley-style winetasting room with an “upscale-casual” restaurant (think Houston’s or J. Alexander’s) in one slick package. It is handsome and strives for sophistication but falls flat on taste, quality and value. The food ranges from mediocre to good. The same goes for the wine, which Cooper’s Hawk bottles in Illinois from grapes grown by vineyards in California and around the world. The public seems to be lapping it up, with Cooper’s Hawk growing to 32 locations in nine states since starting in 2005. Florida has nine, including one that opened last month in Pembroke Pines. Another is scheduled to open next year at the Galleria Mall in Fort Lauderdale.

When I walked into the Coconut Creek location, which opened in January 2017 and serves up to 1,000 meals on busy days, the layout reminded me of a Cracker Barrel with wine. In order to get to the hostess stand and restaurant, one must first walk through a large front room with merchandise. Instead of country store knickknacks, Cooper’s Hawk sells its wine and wine paraphernalia. A tasting counter offers samples of the “wine of the month.” Customers can also taste and buy dozens of varietals lined up along the walls (sweet fruit wines, white wines, red wines, international wines), all crushed and bottled at Cooper’s Hawk headquarters in a Chicago suburb.

Without a reservation, on the tail end of a crowded weekend night, my group was led to the worst table in the house, a booth that abutted a server’s station with two computer terminals. Why that server’s station was located in the middle of an aisle, and not in a corner by a wall, is beyond me. I asked if we could be moved. The hostess said there weren’t any other booths available. We settled in, the view of the dining room and open kitchen obscured by the backsides of servers punching computer screens as they chatted and griped.

The meal began with our server giving a sales pitch to join a $20-a-month wine club. In addition to a 16-page menu, a glossy brochure with a cover of happy couples clinking wine glasses was dropped on our table. “Members get it,” the brochure headline proclaimed, as our server explained the benefits of Cooper’s Hawk club membership (one bottle of wine a month, discounts, rewards points and access to special events and trips to wine regions — no contracts, cancel anytime!). Was this dinner or a time-share presentation at a Hyatt vacation club? It would have been nice if the offer came after the meal and after we had actually tasted some wine.

“That’s a miss on our part,” Jason Plutz, Cooper’s Hawk senior vice president for restaurant operations, said in a followup interview after my meal. “It sounds like we need to do a little retraining.”

Plutz says servers are eager to share information and opportunities with customers, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of the overall experience of enjoying food and wine. He says servers do not get commissions from wine club membership sales. Plutz says there are now 300,000 wine club members and that Cooper’s Hawk now produces some 5 million bottles annually, making it the 34th largest winemaker in the United States. The wine is available only at Cooper’s Hawk locations or through mail shipments.

It also would have been nice if the wines we ordered showed up before our first dish. Our waiter was eager for us to try the crispy Brussels sprouts ($8.99), so we obliged before ordering other appetizers. The dish showed up quickly and also cold, which made me wonder if he was trying to pawn off a mistake order that had been sitting out awhile. The sprouts were more soggy than crispy, served with superfluous chopped cashews and topped with dollops of a creamy orange sriracha-sesame aioli that was cloying.

Our first round of wine arrived next. Wines are grouped into sweet (with fruit wines such as blueberry and passionfruit), medium tier, and luxe. We tried a Cooper’s red blend ($7 glass) that was thin, a decent barrel reserve Bordeaux ($9 glass) that was dry and earthy, and a luxe Meritage ($13 glass) that was properly stored at a cool temperature but was more tannic than I expected. The wine mellowed once it warmed to room temperature and opened, but it still lacked body and the forward fruit that I like in high-end blends. It was the highest-priced wine ($47.99 bottle) in the joint, and it was a thorough disappointment.

I ordered a glass of the Italian super Tuscan ($9.25) with my main course, but it also didn’t show up timely. Wisely, our server said that glass would be on the house. It was my favorite wine of the night, well-structured, fruit-forward and balanced.

Cooper’s Hawk, which also features a stylish wine bar, is an interesting concept, designed to make wine consumption more “approachable” for those diners who might find it snobbish or intimidating. “Our wine is really the centerpiece of our concept,” Plutz says.

Diners can ask to taste samples before ordering a glass ($6.75-$13), bottle ($22.99-$47.99) or 750-milliliter decanter (with an aerator) of Bordeaux drawn from a barrel ($31.99). The restaurant features a paint-by-numbers approach for wine novices — all wines are numbered for easy ordering (those fancy French pronunciations can get cumbersome), and each menu item has its suggested wine pairing listed by number.

Things can get more frustrating for more serious wine consumers. Specifics of grape origin, vintage and sourcing are unknown. Because there is only one label (Cooper’s Hawk) offered for each varietal (sometimes at different price tiers), drinkers simply have to trust that Cooper’s Hawk winemakers have procured good grapes from good places in good growing years.

Plutz says the method provides flexibility to roam to different regions (Washington and Oregon instead of Sonoma or Napa) in years that have proved challenging in some areas. But after tasting some of the results, I wondered if this was just a fancy way to sell surplus or slightly subpar grapes pawned off by top growers.

As for the food, the large menu focuses on upscale American comfort food, such as steaks, bourbon-glazed pork chops, Parmesan-crusted chicken and seafood risotto. Burgers, salads, pastas and gluten-free dishes are available.

Things started promisingly enough with a round loaf of warm pretzel bread, but then things trailed into inconsistency. It seemed with every bite, my mind flickered to comparable dishes I liked better elsewhere. The tuna sashimi appetizer ($12.99) was slicked with an oily soy sauce, and the quality of the fish wasn’t as good or as tender as the ahi I like at the Yard House. A flatbread with skirt steak, mozzarella and roasted peppers ($11.99) was decent but slightly greasy, and not as good as the flatbreads at Seasons 52. A cup of crab and lobster bisque ($6.99) had decent chunks of seafood and a nice base that wasn’t too thick, but it lacked flavor. Do I dare say I like the lobster bisque at Red Lobster better?

The filet mignon ($34.99) was likewise flavorless, needing hits of salt. It was cooked properly medium-rare, but the two sides were inconsistent, with one charred black and the other barely singed. The meat, served with four spears of asparagus (substituted for broccoli) and cheesy shredded potatoes that were undercooked, was small for the money, perhaps 6 ounces. We liked our pretzel-crusted pork chop ($24.99), although the side mashed potatoes were ice-cold. And the scallop and shrimp risotto ($26.99) was the best of the lot, with al dente rice in a creamy base topped with perfectly seared seafood. Desserts ($7.99) were fine, including a tart, parfait-style whipped ice-wine cheesecake and a sweet and creamy “banoffee” pie, a combination of banana cream, toffee and caramel.

Cooper’s Hawk founder Tim McEnery came up with the concept after he visited an ice winery in Illinois and asked, “Where’s the restaurant?” There was none. McEnery, a former country club busboy who went on to work for catering giant Aramark, figured the Heartland might embrace his vision of a place that blended “the good life” of Napa Valley wineries with good food. He opened the first Cooper’s Hawk, named for a Midwestern bird (a cooper is also someone who builds wine casks), in Orland Park, Ill., in 2005.

Thirteen years later, a mini empire is expanding. I can see how some people like Cooper’s Hawk, particularly those in certain regions who find the wine concept exotic. But to a cosmopolitan coastal elite like me, it just feels like a marvel of modern marketing.

“Welcome to the club,” our waiter gushed to a nearby table when they enrolled in the $20-a-month program. I’ll stick with trips to Total Wine and local wine shops, thank you very much.

mmayo@southflorida.com, 954-356-4508. Follow my food adventures on Instagram: @mikemayoeats. Sign up for my weekly dining newsletter at SouthFlorida.com/EatBeatMail.

Cooper’s Hawk Winery and Restaurant

4473 Lyons Road, Coconut Creek

954-861-4699 or CHWinery.com/CoconutCreek

Cuisine: American

Cost: Moderate to expensive. Soup, salad and appetizers cost $4.99-$17.99, burgers, sandwiches and pastas $12.99-$22.99, main courses $17.99-$34.99, sides $4.99, desserts $7.99

Hours: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. daily (until 10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday and 9 p.m. Sunday). Bar stays open one hour later (no food available last hour).

Reservations: Accepted

Credit cards: All major

Bar: Full bar with specialty cocktails and beer. Wine list is limited to varietals bottled by Cooper’s Hawk in Illinois that are grown by vineyards in California and around the world. Corkage $8 for bottles not purchased in dining room.

Noise level: Conversational

Wheelchair access: Ground level

Parking: Free lot

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